So, here are the facts, or at least, what passes for my version of them.
Japan has a subculture known as otaku (おたく / オタク), which is generally translated as nerd or geek, or more gently, enthusiast.
The term is often (or even typically) used pejoratively – at times mildly so, at other times, not.
As with any subculture, there is a mainstream branch; the general animation loving, comic book devouring, teen idol worshiping, frumpy looking, greasy haired otaku of common strain. The otaku commūnis* as it were. Then there are the lesser branches, of which a myriad exist. One of the most easily spotted of these is the spotters. Train spotters, that is. The densha otaku – literally, train nerd.**
You often see them hanging out, typically in pairs or groups, but sometimes alone, at the incoming end of train platforms. They are not just looking at trains though, they are recording them – photographically. And as well as just being generally interesting from a sociological point of view, that’s my link, the photography. Because I don’t just think of them as plain train geeks, they are train photographing geeks.
In many ways, they are the antithesis of how I see myself. They are ‘train photography’ nerds, I am a ‘serious photographer.’ So say us all – all ‘serious photographers’ that is. As of course, to non-photographers we may well all be indistinguishable. Much in the same way a lesser spotted green fringed gerbil is indistinguishable from the common gerbil to, um, non-gerbil fanciers.
Anyway, my long standing question, as a ‘serious photographer,’ has been how to engage with this phenomenon – photographically?
My original idea was simply to document them. But they are prickly. While having no problem with photographing oncoming trains and passing carriages, complete with drivers, conductors, passengers and incidental passersby, they themselves, as a subspecies, are not so friendly to the idea of the gaze turned upon themselves. I have to admit though, in the attempt to capture wider, context revealing images, I have so far only tried across platform / track, where I am painfully obviously photographing them. I have yet to try up close, blending into the back of the pack as faux nerd. Perhaps there I will actually have better luck.
My other approach, which really only occurred to me recently, is to engage more intimately with their habitat. In other words, photograph the trains, stations, platforms, etc. and not the nerds. Kind of like, talk about the nerds by being one. Or something.
One thing is for sure, rail transportation offers a wealth of angular, circular, endless, terminal figure and ground opportunity.
* commūne? commūnia? – where’s Stephen Fry when you need him?
**wow, the exact moment I finished typing that two-word phrase, Stoned Train Driver popped up on shuffle. That uncanny ability of iTunes to read minds again.